We ride Harley Davidson's AMA hero-maker.
Watching AMA Pro Roadracing on cable or satellite TV only tells you part of the story. Aside from the action which pours into your living room courtesy of Speed Channel,
there's plenty more incredible competition that you'll only get to experience either via a pay-per-view computer feed or in person. Each weekend features several untelevised support classes, with racing that offers every bit as much excitement as the events which receive coverage.
If you want to see the stars of tomorrow dueling it out on identically prepared machines, with nothing besides skill and bravery separating the winner from the losers, then the AMA Vance & Hines XR1200 Series is for you. This is very much a spec class which utilizes the $11,799 Harley Davidson XR1200X as a starting point. Add the $3500 race kit developed and sold by legendary motorcycle tuning shop Vance & Hines, and you're headed to the grid aboard a motorcycle which is essentially identical to those which your competitors will be riding. Even tires, fuel and gearing are specified, which leaves very little room for tuning creativity and puts the emphasis on rider ability.
As we reported on May first, TrackdayMag.com contributor Wes Orloff is planning to convert his WFOracingonline.com XR1200, which is an AMA spec racer formerly ridden by Shawn Higbee, into a motorcycle capable of competing in the Pikes Peak Hill Climb. About a month ago, Wes called and asked us if we'd like to experience his motorcycle in AMA trim before he began its transformation. What? Ride one of the hero-making machines that are currently used to pit budding superstars such as Tyler O Hara and the Wyman brothers against racing luminaries the likes of Michael Barnes and David Estok on the AMA's most level playing field? Oh heck yes!
This opportunity would occur at Road America, in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, on May fourth. The event was an Apex Manufacturing test & tune/track day, which was held on the Friday before a Championship Cup Series race weekend. The forecast called for cold, blustery conditions, which would substantially limit both grip and confidence. Prior to our ride, we discussed what to expect with Speed Academy instructors Jason DiSalvo and Kyle Wyman. Kyle has won at Daytona two years in a row on the Harley and is currently third in the 2012 points standings for the class. Both these riders are very familiar with the XR1200 and offered similar advice. First and foremost, they warned against taking the bike for granted, as it would punish stupid or inattentive riding. We were also told to use a smooth, deliberate style and to avoid doing anything sudden or ham-handed, lest we anger the beast. Hmmmm...
As a street bike, the Harley Davidson XR1200X is aimed at riders who dig the nostalgic Flat Track look but want modern Milwaukee reliability. The machine is Sportster-based and while racy looking, is actually pretty well suited to those whose mission is to get their motor runnin’ and head out on the highway. To turn it into a roadracing machine, the stance of the bike's chassis is altered pretty radically, accomplished through the use of modified suspension and a 17" front wheel that allows the fitment of industry-standard sportbike-sized rubber. The race XR has a decidedly nose-down attitude. Anyone who has played with their motorcycle's chassis pitch can tell you that while lowering a bike's front end will steepen rake and make it turn into a corner more easily, a drawback is that it also reduces trail, which affects both stability and front end feel. It's not to say that an XR1200 can't handle with the best machines out there but rather that the window of what works for a given rider is very small compared to a more mainstream sportbike. The upper-echelon teams in the series spend endless time testing their setups and the country's top suspension tuners have all been hard at work on the XR racers, each looking for the best solutions to make this hog fly. Needless to say, if you're riding yesterday's suspension, you're behind the curve. If you're riding settings that were developed for another rider with a very different body type and skill set, well....
We mulled all this information over as we waited hopefully for an afternoon warming trend that never materialized. Eventually, we just had to settle for cold and blustery. With the Dunlops set to their correct hot pressures and Sunoco spec fuel in the tank, we gave the machine a good five minutes to warm up. Finally, it was go time.
Though it produces the same throaty rumble, this motorcycle could never be mistaken for a Buell. The ratio of steel to aluminum in an XR1200 is probably inversely proportional to that of an Asian or European sportbike. Even if you've been moving literbikes around the pit area all day, pushing an XR a few feet will have you wondering if it is equipped with third-row seating. The engine noise makes up for that, though. A Harley Davidson sounds like nothing else. In this case, Vance & Hines have worked their exhaust magic through a $1250, 2-1-2, X-piped work of art that they named "Widow." Not only is this system beautiful, it's also completely unprotected. Orloff's instructions regarding the care and handling of his motorcycle during this test had ended with the comment: "Don't crash it. If you do crash it, don't crash it on the exhaust side." As we headed off down the pit lane, firing all of our guns at once and exploding into space, we noted that the handlebars and footpegs actually made for a quite civilized cockpit, more akin to a Supermoto than a crotch rocket. Our next pleasant surprise was the brakes, which rival those on any sporting machine. The power delivery, um... Let's just say that if you've absolutely, positively got to have it there overnight, you might want to pick a different motorcycle. Still, if you keep the revs above three grand, the air-cooled twin finds its redline pretty quickly. This allows you to invest yourself in steadily rowing the gearbox, which on the WFO machine is an absolute joy to operate. No clunky crash-box on this baby! We suspect that someone with LOTS of Harley Davidson transmission experience expended a great deal of love on WFO's superb collection of cogs.
The first lap aboard this XR1200 racer was one of absolute terror. We were learning with every mile but at first these were big, big lessons. For starters, the bike has essentially zero wind protection. This leaves the rider feeling like a human parachute but at the same time, if you cling to the handlebars, the machine goes into an instant tank-slapper. The trick is to let the butt-catcher seat and your core muscles hold you as you guide the motorcycle with your fingertips. Turn-in was crisp to the point of being utterly ridiculous, with the tall, narrow chassis and high, wide bars affording the rider way more leverage and flickability than such a heavy motorcycle has any right to possess. In fact, given the Harley's relaxed seating position and narrow tank, it's extremely easy to transfer your body mass from side to side too quickly and just as likely that you'll put more effort into steering the handlebars than the machine wants or needs. The XR1200 really HATES this kind of input and threatens to throw you on the pavement if you treat it roughly. As our session progressed, we discovered that the key to riding the XR, at least in the form we had beneath us, was to do everything as gently and methodically as possible. Smoothness was rewarded, while abruptness was punished. These tendencies made the XR one of the most difficult bikes we've ever tried to go fast on. If you think about it, such a machine would make a great learning tool for those up-and-comers who populate the class, wouldn't it?
By the time our session was completed, we'd begun to figure out what the XR needed from its pilot. If you show the bike some patience and don't get too bossy with it, you can carry some pretty intense corner speed on this big steel steed. The Harley is a very challenging motorcycle to ride. It's also a very intriguing and seductive machine, judging from the amount of feedback the Milwaukee twin generated while sitting next to our trailer. At a combined racer practice/trackday event, this motorcycle caused more people to stop, stare, comment and snap pictures than anything else we've ever brought to the track. During an AMA weekend, cycles like this and the close competition that they breed drive the fans simply wild as they witness some of the most exciting racing to be found in the sport today. Best of all, the XR1200 is an American icon. What better way to give this country's next generation of pro road racers their start?